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Red Sea is today's arena for clash of African-Arab power politics

Red Sea is today's arena for clash of African-Arab power politics

This didn't start with Gaza. The last decade has been a rollercoaster of hope and horror for the peoples here

Analysis | Middle East

For the Arab Gulf kingdoms, the Horn of Africa is a strategic perimeter. They want to minimize political threats — some are hostile to Islamists, all want to suppress democracy movements. Anticipating a post-carbon and food insecure world, the Gulf States want to possess rich farmlands. Each has its own vision of African client states that will do their bidding.

This is a recipe for proxy wars, state fragmentation and autocracy in northeast Africa.

For the Horn of Africa, today’s crises are existential. War, dictatorship and famine are causing state collapse. The African Union is compromised, its peace and security system unravelling. The United Nations is retreating from peacemaking, increasingly reduced to a bare-bones humanitarian provider.

The dangers were illuminated by the surprise New Year’s Day deal between Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, and Muse Bihi, president of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, a breakaway region of northwest Somalia. Ethiopia has been renowned for careful diplomacy, including championing the inviolability of existing boundaries. After fighting wars with Somalia in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ethiopia had learned to be circumspect and consultative in its dealings with Mogadishu.

Last week, Ethiopia upended that tradition. It promised to recognize Somaliland as an independent sovereign state, in return for Somaliland leasing it a 12-mile stretch of land, including a seaport, that will allow Ethiopia to establish a naval base. This in turn unleashed strong words from Somalia — which had not been informed ahead of time. The AU called for Ethiopia to treat Somalia with respect. Fears of new conflicts were stirred. Unsaid in public is that the UAE is widely suspected to be the patron of the deal.

For the United States, crises in the Horn of Africa are a sidebar to the ongoing Israel-Gaza war and the confrontation with Iran. Gunboat diplomacy in the Red Sea — the warships deployed under Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect shipping from attacks from the Houthis in Yemen — is the priority.

The narrow strip of water carries 12 percent of world seaborne trade. For sailors, the Red Sea is “a sea on the way to somewhere else,” its shores at best an inconvenience, at worst a security threat.

There’s a global consensus on keeping the shipping lanes open. If the Red Sea shuts down — as happened following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war— the knock-on effects on trade between Europe and Asia would be economically severe. The EU-run Operation Atalanta runs an anti-piracy flotilla involving warships from 13 European nations, (including the UK, which provided the flagship until Brexit), working with ships from Ukraine, India, Korea and Colombia.

After a few years the flotilla commanders concluded that the solution to piracy lay onshore, in the form of diplomacy to resolve Somalia’s conflicts and economic assistance to provide livelihoods to impoverished fishermen. That was a step in the right direction.

Saudi Arabia chairs a Red Sea Forum that includes eight littoral states (all except Israel), to tackle piracy, smuggling and marine resources — not political issues.

Six years ago, Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa who chairs the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for the Horn of Africa, introduced the term “Red Sea Arena.” The idea was to create a diplomatic forum that would include not just the littoral states, but all the other countries with vital interests in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden or with political and commercial links across the narrow strip of water.

The former AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ramtane Lamamra explained: “The Red Sea has historically been a bridge rather than a divide, with the peoples on the two shores sharing culture, trade, and social relations.” Egypt has millennia-old interests in the Nile Valley and both shores of the Red Sea. Ethiopia has a vital interest in access to the sea. The UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Turkey all have historic or current interests.

Regional and global power struggles are played out in the Red Sea Arena. Seven nations including the U.S., China, Turkey and the UAE have naval bases there. Others, including Iran and Russia, have warships in the vicinity and are actively seeking bases. The port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba is Israel’s strategic back door, as the Houthi attacks on shipping have dramatically shown.

The plan for a standing conference of Red Sea Arena states built on proposals contained in the World Peace Foundation report to the AU, “African Politics, African Peace” — for which Mbeki and veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi co-authored the preface. The idea was that Middle Eastern states should sign on to the principles of the AU’s peace and security architecture and establish joint mechanisms for cooperation.

The AU failed to act on these proposals. Nor were they raised at the UN Security Council.

Instead, Arabian Gulf states are increasingly assertive in the Horn, and they’re bringing an aggressive form of transactional politics, including funding proxies to fight wars. The U.S. — whose security umbrella sheltered the Red Sea for decades — seems uninterested.

Saudi Arabia has long seen the African shore of the Red Sea as part of its security perimeter. Qatar and Turkey sought influence in Sudan and Somalia, especially among the Islamists. Israel has discreetly sought a determining role in the region.

But the key actor is the UAE. A small, rich state, it uses proxies to project power, and supports separatists in disregard of international norms. Abu Dhabi’s clients include key players in Libya and Chad, and it is positioning itself as kingmaker in the Horn. The UAE supports and arms Ethiopia. It already controls many ports in the region — including, it is suspected, the proposed Ethiopian port and naval base in the land leased from Somaliland. But Abu Dhabi has yet to clarify its strategic goals for the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.

The UAE has long had a free pass in Washington. Only recently has the U.S. begun to criticize Abu Dhabi’s adventurism in Sudan, calling out its arming of the murderous Rapid Support Forces there.

The last decade has been a rollercoaster of hope and horror for the peoples of the Red Sea Arena. Popular uprisings in Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan all descended into lethal brews of autocracy, war, atrocity, and famine, with local conflicts escalating into proxy wars. Guided by the short-term imperative of staying in power — and by the ambitions of cash-rich foreign sponsors — today’s leaders are too often short-sighted and transactional.

Under UN and AU guidance, a raft of peace agreements was crafted to serve as the threshold for democracy. Today a peace pact, such as the threadbare “Permanent Cessation of Hostilities” that ended Ethiopia’s war in Tigray, may be no more than a truce. The principle of the primacy of politics — that served Africa’s peace agenda well — has come to mean short-term transactionalism rather than a commitment to democracy, good governance, and inclusivity.

A key African norm was “sovereignty as responsibility,” developed by the Sudanese/South Sudanese lawyer and diplomat Francis Deng. Today we have its antithesis, decried as “neo-sovereigntism” by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe.

Today’s regression means that Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki is being rehabilitated. For 30 years, Isaias has ruled an iron fist, with no constitution let alone political parties or an open media, hoping that the tide of global liberalism would recede. He looks to be proven correct.

Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemedti,” commander of the Rapid Support Forces, the insurgent paramilitaries notorious for their human rights abuses, is touring Africa in a Royal Jet airplane (an Emirati airline). He arrived in Addis Ababa last week where he met Prime Minister Abiy. Extending protocol to Emirati-backed disrupters is the new normal in the region.

To the extent that it functions at all, the AU is becoming the face of illiberal multilateralism, veering away from its founding principles. The UN’s practice of deferring to its regional partners leaves it eviscerated. The InterGovernmental Authority on Development — the eight-member northeast African bloc — is now deeply divided and approaching paralysis.

With the Horn of Africa and Yemen slipping far down the priority list in Western foreign ministries, America and Europe are sending mid-ranking diplomats into the snake pit, woefully under-armed for the perils they encounter. Too easily intimidated by swaggering local despots, perhaps swayed by zombie “Pan Africanist” slogans that challenge their right to talk about human rights, they have left their countries irrelevant in the face of ruthless Gulf power-broking.

Recent developments could not have been anticipated in detail. But American diplomats saw the broader challenge some years ago. In 2020, a bipartisan “senior study group” on the Red Sea convened by the United States Institute of Peace, prioritized a broad diplomatic strategy for the Red Sea Arena. The USIP report warned that conflicts in the region could threaten U.S. national security and proposed a high-level envoy with a broad mandate.

The Biden administration quickly appointed a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, but the Africa Bureau at the State Department soon downgraded the position. The cost of this strategic neglect is becoming clear today.

There’s still a chance for a diplomatic forum that promotes collective security. Washington has lost its best opportunities to take a lead — any U.S. initiative today will arouse deep suspicions among others. Middle Eastern powers don’t, as a rule, propose collective action, and the Gulf states are divided. The Europeans will follow, not lead.

The onus of leadership then falls on Africa and on the United Nations. Acting together, they can create a consensus that brings on board America, Europe, China, and Russia in a forum framed by the agenda of a stable and cooperative Red Sea Arena.

Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS//File Photo

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